After one of the longest environmental battles in Vashon’s history, Glacier Northwest on Friday began laying containment booms in the waters surrounding its aging dock — the first step in its long-sought effort to construct a controversial pier off the eastern rim of Maury Island.
The corporation began its work Friday afternoon moments after King County gave it a “notice to proceed” on the corporation’s building permit. King County Executive Ron Sims, noting that the county had exhausted all of “its reasonable legal options,” said he had no choice but to give Glacier the go-ahead.
“This is a disappointment to those of us who work passionately to protect the waters of Puget Sound,” he said in a prepared statement. “Earlier this week, we celebrated our bold new plan to protect the Sound, and yet the county has no appropriate basis for withholding the Notice to Proceed. It is my hope that this unfortunate predicament serves as the basis for real protection of our aquatic land by the State of Washington in the future.”
Glacier officials, however, said they were pleased by the turn of events and will be working long hours seven days a week to try to get the steel dock in place by Jan. 14, when state restrictions to protect spawning fish go into effect and it has to suspend work for several months.
“It’s very important to us that it gets done on time,” Stoltz said of the steel pier. “It’d be very difficult, very disruptive to stop mid-project and remobilize at another time. We’d like to see it get done before Jan. 14.”
Friday’s activity marked a week of tumult on Vashon, which started late Tuesday when outgoing state Public Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland announced he had issued Glacier a 30-year lease to build a pier over a state-owned aquatic reserve, the last administrative hurdle in Glacier’s decade-long battle to dramatically expand sand and gravel mining at the madrone-studded site on Maury.
Glacier’s foes worked quickly Wednesday to try to forestall the start of the mammoth pier. Amy Carey, the director of Preserve Our Islands, a Vashon group fighting the Glacier expansion, said the organization filed an appeal of the state’s decision in King County Superior Court Wednesday morning.
This week, it plans to file an injunction, seeking an immediate halt to the construction.
She and others said they’re troubled by how quickly Glacier moved into the site with a barge, trucks and bulldozers. A large construction barge was in place Wednesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after news of the lease was released to the public. Glacier’s fast turnaround, Carey said, was “more evidence of their long-standing cohoots with Doug Sutherland.”
Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island), POI’s former head who has been at the forefront of the fight against Glacier, said the barge’s arrival “in the cover of night” says a lot about how the corporation works.
“It was a real statement to the community that they’re in charge and the agencies are not,” she said. “It was a nasty statement and goes to what we’ve said in the past — this is not a good corporate neighbor.”
Calling the decision ill-timed, Carey noted that the lease award was issued only one day after the state’s new Puget Sound Partnership put forward its action agenda for the Sound’s restoration and days after several leading members of the environmental community sent a letter to state officials asking them to delay a decision until they could meet to discuss the implications of the new recovery plan.
Carey said she found out the state had issued the lease when a reporter called her Tuesday night.
“This is really disappointing, but not a surprise by any means,” she added.
The decision comes in the final weeks of Sutherland’s tenure as the head of the state Department of Natural Resources, the agency that awarded Glacier the lease.
Sutherland, who lost his bid for a third term to Peter Goldmark, was criticized during his campaign for his relationship with the timber and mining industry and Glacier in particular.
In October, a small group of Islanders filed a complaint with the state ethics board saying Sutherland should recuse himself from the decision because of a $50,000 donation Glacier made to an independent political action committee working to see Sutherland re-elected.
In an interview Wed-nesday, Sutherland said campaign contributions did not influence his decision.
“I don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t have to do this. But I felt it was prudent,” he said. “I felt it was my job. I felt it was my responsibility to make the decision. And I did.”
Glacier’s project will improve Maury’s near-shore health, he added, because the new pier will replace an aging one that is coated with creosote, a known carcinogen. And under the terms of the lease, Glacier will put its shoreline and bluff property into a conservation easement, protecting that swath of land from development in perpetuity, Sutherland said.
“Regardless of all the gnashing and thrashing over this, I’m really convinced that we’ve ended up with a much better project and that over time people will benefit greatly from this project,” he said.
The conservation easement does not extend across Glacier’s entire 235-acre site, however. Asked why he didn’t seek an easement over the entire site during lease negotiations, Sutherland said, “I took as big a bite as I could. I didn’t want to push it that hard. I thought this was a significant gift to the people of Maury and Vashon Island.”
Carey, however, discounted the significance of the conservation easement. Under current land-use codes, neither the bluff nor shoreline are open to development, she said.
“The notion that this is a concession on anybody’s part is fairly disingenuous,” she said.
The fight over Glacier’s proposed sand and gravel mine — a dramatic expansion over the intermittent mining that has occurred on the site for the past several decades — has put Maury Island at the center of one of the highest profile land-use debates in recent years. Eleven years ago, Glacier first proposed its expansion plans, saying it wanted to remove 7.5 million tons a year over the course of several years. The company — owned by a Japanese conglomerate — has since revised that figure; Stoltz says Glacier hopes to mine 1.5 million to 2 million tons a year.
To facilitate the huge operation, Glacier proposed a T-shaped pier that large barges would sidle up to, carting off 10,000 tons of gravel per barge for any number of projects throughout the region and elsewhere. The barge-loading operation would run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. five days a week.
The debate has garnered considerable attention. Last month, 25 fellows in the Pew Institute for Ocean Science — marine scientists from Stanford University, the University of British Columbia, the University of Washington and several other leading colleges and institutes — signed a declaration expressing concern over the proposed “industrial barging facility” and asked Sutherland to give the Maury reserve “the highest level of protection in order to ensure that the significant environmental values of the area are preserved.”
Sutherland, however, said the fact that Maury is an aquatic reserve doesn’t mean “it’s a preserve” and that under state statute he’s obligated “to look at ways to help and develop commerce.”
In Glacier’s case, he added, he felt an obligation to award the corporation a lease, since Glacier had obtained all the county, state and even federal permits required for the project; in at least one instance, Glacier foes fought the permit all the way to the state Supreme Court, he noted.
“Quite frankly, the construction window closes in mid-January. And it didn’t seem to me to be fair to the company to make an arbitrary decision to delay. I had all of the information I needed to have,” he said.
Meanwhile, Friday evening, as a dramatic sunset painted the sky orange and pink, work was underway at the waterfront site just south of Gold Beach. A huge crane, lit by bright lights, appeared to be lifting items, and workers in three small boats laid yellow booms around the old pier that once offloaded gravel from the site while workers watched and talked from a landing just above the pier.
A heron flew by. Mount Rainier, cast in a mantle of pink, shimmered in the distance.
A Glacier employee called down to a visitor, asking her to leave.
Asked how late workers would be on the site that night, he answered, “Late enough to get this boom set.”
Would crews be at work Saturday?
“Absolutely,” he answered.